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Catching On Sooner

UCLA, off to a 2-0 start and favored over No. 21-ranked Oklahoma, sees speed and experience as keys to victory

September 17, 2005|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

The coach in charge of UCLA's defense has, for weeks, been looking forward to today's game against Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Peterson.

Last season, UCLA's run defense was among the worst in the nation, but coordinator Larry Kerr is hoping the Bruins can make a major statement by locking down the Sooner running back and defeating the nation's No. 21-ranked team at the Rose Bowl.

"Every coach and every player gets excited to play in big games," Kerr said. "We're making strides as a defense. We're getting some young guys some experience and some of our older guys are getting better. This will be a real test. A great challenge."

In 2004, the Bruin defense struggled with consistency and its overall lack of speed showed against quick offenses. During the off-season, UCLA made a commitment to fix the problem by turning to swifter and more aggressive players.

That's why the Bruins now start sophomore Nikola Dragovic at end ahead of senior Kyle Morgan, who started the final 10 games of last season. Dragovic, a former wrestler, is smaller than the more experienced Morgan -- but he's also quicker. In two games, Dragovic has seven tackles, including a sack, and has recovered one fumble and blocked a kick.

"We have guys who can do some things now," said Kerr, whose defense will open against Oklahoma with eight players who started at least two games last season.

"To have healthy bodies with experience means all the difference in the world. There are a lot of good players on both sides of the football, but it's usually the guys with experience that give you an edge. We have a good mix of experienced guys with young players who can do some things."

UCLA gave up an average of 432.9 yards a game last season, including 222.8 on the ground. This season, the Bruins are allowing averages of 328.5 and 174.

While depth was a problem, it's now a strength. When starting tackle C.J. Niusulu and linebacker Justin London were injured last season, the Bruins were left scrambling.

This season, UCLA has already won two games without injured tackle Kevin Brown, the team's most experienced lineman, and safety Chris Horton.

Senior linebackers London and Spencer Havner, along with strong safety Jarrad Page, have provided leadership to a defense that also has returning starters in linemen Justin Hickman and Brigham Harwell and cornerbacks Marcus Cassel and Trey Brown.

"They are led by their two great linebackers who have been there for a while," Oklahoma running back Kejuan Jones said of London and Havner, who were starters when the Sooners defeated UCLA, 59-24, in 2003.

But it has been the emergence of freshmen such as Chase Moline, John Hale and Robert Kibble and sophomores Dragovic, Dennis Keyes and Aaron Whittington that has allowed Kerr to expand his playbook.

"Our defense has played better," said Coach Karl Dorrell, who has a 14-13 record in his third season with the Bruins. "We just need to make sure that Oklahoma doesn't get that explosiveness that they've had in the past."

Being 2-0 and a touchdown favorite over a ranked team is new territory for UCLA under Dorrell. But the Bruins seem to be catching Oklahoma at a good time.

The Sooners (1-1) committed four turnovers and lost, 17-10, at home to Texas Christian in their season opener. Last week, Oklahoma defeated Tulsa, 31-15, but trailed, 9-6, midway in the third quarter.

Experience at quarterback has been an edge for Oklahoma in recent years, but not this season. After Heisman Trophy winner Jason White completed his eligibility, Oklahoma was expected to have a three-way quarterback battle among Tommy Grady, Rhett Bomar and Paul Thompson.

But Grady, the most experienced of the three, transferred to Utah in August, leaving Bomar and Thompson to share the position. And they have struggled. Thompson started in the season-opening loss to Texas Christian and completed 11 of 26 passes for 109 yards with an interception and two fumbles.

Bomar today will get his second start after completing five of 13 passes for 42 yards last week against Tulsa. However, he did not even attempt a pass in the second half.

Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops said his team still has confidence that it can get the job done against the Bruins.

"I can't say that we're just sky high, but our guys also know that we're doing the right things," he said. "As long as we continue working hard, there's no reason we can't make improvements as we go through the year. We need to make something of this week."

The main Sooner on offense is Peterson, a sophomore who has rushed for 2,208 yards in 15 games.

Peterson kept himself from being a starter today -- he was caught skipping classes and was suspended from two practices this week -- but will play. In his career, Peterson has rushed for more than 200 yards four times and is averaging 141.5 yards a game this season.

But even with Peterson in the backfield, Dorrell likes UCLA's chances.

"We felt pretty good about [playing Oklahoma] at the start of the season; we knew that we had a good team," Dorrell said.

"This is a measuring-stick type of game, to see what we're all about."

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